Saturday, November 26, 2011

Two Years of Giving Thanks

Two years ago the 26th was Thanksgiving Day. I remember it distinctly because I was almost seven months pregnant and we had driven from Norfolk, VA to Maine for Thanksgiving.  After consulting with my doctor we decided it was fine to travel since, to date, my pregnancy had been uneventful.   I had spent the day before Thanksgiving baking pies for the big day.  I didn't feel well that day but I figured it was because I had been traveling and I was pregnant. I mean, what pregnant woman ever feels well when she is bloated and cranky all the time?

As I went to bed the night of the 25th I suspected something really wasn't right. After a flurry of phone calls back to my doctor in Virginia, Glenn piled me into the car and drove at break neck speed the 1 1/2 hours to the hospital in Portland.  Glenn told me that my doctor was saying it was only a precaution (I was to later find out that she in fact told him that it was critical that we get there).  I grew up driving the route from my mom's house to Portland but I never remember it taking such a long time.  I kid you not when I say it was a dark and foggy night.

Sidney at one week
Three hours later we had a healthy, albeit tiny son who weighed in at 2 lbs 12 oz (or 1.25 kilograms).  We found ourselves as the newest members of a club no one wants membership in- that belonging to the parents of premature babies.  As someone who researches, plans, then executes the most minute event, I was in over my head with the task before me.  We were blessed with the good fortune of being at the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Maine Medical Center.  Little did we know but this hospital has one of the best NICUs in the country. The nurses and doctors helped us through the first few hours, days, then weeks as we sat vigil at Sidney's bedside.  They patiently explained each procedure and became an integral part of our lives over the next four weeks.

Thanks to modern technology- i.e. Facebook, friends from around the globe offered their encouragement and support.  Within hours of Sidney's birth- as Glenn and I sat in a dumbfounded stupor in my hospital room, we received phone calls from my sister in Switzerland and our dear friends Chris and Catherine.  Although they were in Japan, they had already heard the news and were offering their support.  Our USS Theodore Roosevelt "family" back in Norfolk began working the phones to make sure we had the support we needed.  Glenn's leave was immediately extended thus allowing him to spend additional time in the hospital with his new family of three.  My friend Victoria, a.k.a. as the Tricare guru, gave me a crash course in advocacy and making the cumbersome military health care system work for us instead of against us.  Back in Norfolk our friends Eric and Gail supervised contractors who were called in at the last minute to speed up the on-going renovations in our home.

After a week Glenn returned to Norfolk and my friends Diane and Lexi put the TR wives to work making sure he was fed in my absence.  My brother and sister-in-law, along with my parents, made regular treks to the hospital to make sure I wasn't alone.  My in-laws flew up from Maryland and friends who couldn't be with me checked in on a daily basis offering me the love and support I needed to get through those difficult first weeks.  

Sidney continued to surpass the doctors' expectations and within a month, and only a few days shy of Christmas, we learned that Sidney was medically stable and could be transferred to a hospital closer to home.  Glenn's CO made sure we would all be together in Virginia by Christmas and on Christmas Eve Sidney was medi-flighted to Portsmouth Naval Medical Center.  

We went through our share of ups and downs over the next seven weeks but found our savior in a wonderful nurse named Rebecca who became Sidney's fiercest advocate.  Our TR family came through once again with hot meals and manual labor to make sure our house was ready for Sidney's homecoming after 11 weeks in two different NICUs in two different states.  Throughout it all Sidney defied expectations and proved to be a little trooper.

The birthday boy with his new ride
Today Sidney is a strong willed little boy who has both the best and worst traits of both of his parents.  Today we celebrate Sidney's second birthday with birthday French toast, qofta (Albanian hotdogs), gifts, and a low key trip to Blur (the Albanian version of Chuckee Cheese).  I wish my dear little boy the happiest of birthdays.  But today, I also extend an enormous thank you to everyone who has provided us with love, support, and guidance over the past two years. We wouldn't be here without you and for that, I invite all of you to share in today's celebration.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving American (?) Style

Today is American Thanksgiving.  In recent years Thanksgiving has become the eve of Black Friday, an all out sale extravaganza that marks the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.  Traditionally, however,  it is a day to give thanks for all we are grateful for.  There are so many things I am thankful for- my family, friends, and as I age, my health- these are just a few of the things I must not take for granted.

Living overseas, Thanksgiving has snuck up on me this year.  When Glenn and I were first talking about this year's impending holiday, we realized that it would be the first one since we have known each other where we weren't doing the multi-family shuffle up and down Interstate 95 (another thing we are thankful for- not having to spend hours upon hours stuck in traffic).

For me, Thanksgiving has always been about family, friends, and friends that are like family.  Since we will be without our blood family this year, we decided share our American Thanksgiving with our adopted Albanian family- those people we see on a daily basis who make our lives possible.  What started out as an invitation the the Americans and Albanians in both of our offices has morphed into a dining extravaganza for 25.  We've included our housekeeper and our nanny and their respective families since none of what we do would be possible without their dedication and hard work.  Our two "adopted"  Marines from the Embassy's Marine Security Guard contingent were invited along with their co-workers and a smattering of girlfriends.

So how did we do this?  With the support of GSO and the previously mentioned housekeeper we crammed three dining room tables into our representational space.  The intermittent, and notoriously unreliable mail pouch came through with my "last minute" linens order.  Glenn discovered his crafty side as he went to work (under my supervision) putting together homemade turkey, wheat sheaf,  and pumpkin shaped place cards to keep the seating under control and eliminate any language barriers.

I began crafting my menu a month ago with an execution strategy that would put military planning to shame.  Turkeys and ham were purloined from the military commissary in Kosovo while sweet potatoes were brought back from Naples, Italy by traveling friends.  A lack of pecans and fresh cranberries in Albania resulted in the traditional pumpkin pie becoming a maple-walnut pie (Walnuts must be bought whole here then shelled)  and imported cranberry sauce from a can.  Pumpkin pie was made from my precious stash of canned pumpkin that I had packed into our consumable goods.  To accommodate all tastes and dietary restrictions, new dishes were added and some seasonings toned down.  Traditional recipes from both my family and Glenn's were included on the menu.   I added a few new dishes that will become part of our little family's tradition.  My mother spent one day of her visit making seven pie crusts which greatly expedited the production and baking of desserts.  The entire family learned the best techniques for roasting and shelling pounds (or kilograms) of fresh chestnuts.  A borrowed turkey roaster and my trusty crockpot allowed all the items to be cooked and served hot.

I began the actual cooking process a week ago, freezing and storing things as I went.  On more than one occasion I questioned my sanity at the wisdom of this whole event.  In the end, however, I believe it was worth it.  Our guests came and ate and shared our holiday with us. Yes, it was crazy and a bit chaotic but isn't that what the holidays are really about?  What better way to introduce such an American holiday to Albanians.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The History of Rozafa Castle

At a very windy Rozafa Castle.  Additional pictures can be found here.
My parents have been visiting and as is true anytime we have visitors, we provide them with a whirlwind tour of the best sites our current home has to offer.  This past Saturday, that meant a trek to the northern Albanian city of Shkoder.  Shkoder sits on the southern edge of Lake Shkoder, the largest lake in the Balkans.  A highlight of any trip to Shkoder is a visit to Rozafa Castle.

To change things up a bit, below you will find a story of Rozafa Castle that I'm borrowing from Mitrush Kuteli's Old Albanian Tales.  I first read the tale in Albanian, but I've included the English version here.

There is a beautiful but bitter legend about the building of Rozafa Castle, which has come down to us from olden times.  Here is what that legend says:

On the summit of Valdanuz Hill, three brothers were working.  They were building a castle.  The wall they built during the day collapsed at night, and so they could never get it any higher.

Along there came a nice old man, who greeted them. "All the best to you too, you kind old man." the brothers said.  "But as for day we work, by night it collapses.  Can you give us any advice?  How can we keep the walls standing?"

"I know," said the old man, "but it is a sin to tell you."

"On our heads be the sin, because we want this castle to stay up."

The nice old man thought about it, and then he asked:  "Are you married, brave lads? Do you have three lasses at home?"

"We are married," they said.  "All three of us have lasses.  So tell us what to do to keep this castle standing!"

"If you want to keep it, swear this to each other on your honor: don't tell your lasses, don't speak at home about what I will say.  Whichever of your wives brings your lunch tomorrow, take her and wall her up alive in the wall of the castle.  Then you will see that the wall will stay in place and remain for ever and a day."

This is what the old  man said, and he left.  One  moment he was there, and the next he was gone.

Alas!  The eldest brother broke his word of honor.  He spoke at home, told his lass, just like that, and he told her not to go there the next day.  The middle one too, broke his word of honor, he told everything to his lass. Only the youngest kept his word of honor.  He did not speak at home, he did not tell his lass.

In the morning, the three of them got up early and went to work.  Hammers struck, rocks broke, hearts beat, the walls grew higher.

At home, the lads' mother knew nothing.  She said to the eldest"  "Daughter-in-law, the workers want bread and water; they want a gourd of wine."

The eldest daughter-in-law answered her: "Upon my word, mother.  I can't go today because I am ill."

She turned and said to the middle one:  "Daughter-in-law, the workers want bread and water; they want a gourd of wine."

"Upon my word mother, I can't possibly go today; I'm going to my parents' house the night."

The lads' mother turned and said to the youngest daughter-in-law:  "Daughter-in-law."

The youngest daughter-in-law jumped to her feet, "Yes, mother?"

"The workers want bread and water; they want a gourd of wine."

"Upon my word mother, I would go but for my little boy.  I am afraid he will want the breast and he will cry."

"Oh you go, we'll look after the boy, we won't let him cry," said her sisters-in-law. 

The youngest stood up, the good girl; she took bread and water, she took the wine-gourd, she kissed her son on both cheeks and set off; she climbed up Valdanuz Hill and drew near the place where the three men- her two brothers-in-law and her husband- were working.

"May your work go well!"

But what was this?  Their hammers stopped striking, but their hearts beat faster and faster.  Their faces grew pale.  When the youngest saw his wife, he threw the hammer from his hand, he cursed the stone and the wall.  His wife said:

"What is the matter, my lord? Why do you curse the stone and the wall?"

The eldest brother-in-law broke in, "It was a black day when you were born, our dear sister-in-law.  We have sworn to wall you up alive in the castle wall."

"And all the best to you, my brothers-in-law.  But I have one request for you.  When you wall me up, leave my right eye uncovered , leave my right hand uncovered, leave my right foot uncovered, and leave my right breast uncovered.  Because I have a little boy.  When he starts to cry, with one eye I will see him, with one hand I will stroke him, with one foot I will rock his cradle, and with one breast I will feed him.  May my breast turn to stone, may the castle stay firm, may my son grow up brave, and may he become king and rule!"

They took the youngest wife and they walled her up in the foundations of the castle.  And the walls rose, they grew high, they did not collapse as they had before.  But at their base the stones are damp and mossy to this day, because of the mother's tears still fall for her son.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Every country seems to have a national drink and in Albania that drink is raki.  For those who have never tried it, raki is akin to good old American moonshine and the process for making it is similar.  (A more in depth history of raki can be found here).  I was first served raki on a rooftop deck in Arlington by Albanian friends of ours. I knew I was in trouble when I could smell the drink coming my way before I could see it.  I disliked it immediately and even Glenn only managed to drink a sip or two out of politeness. To me, raki tastes like rubbing alcohol with an after burn that just stays with you.  

When we arrived in Albania we were "fortunate" enough to find several bottles of raki that had been left in our house by the previous tenants and we have already been gifted with more bottles than we will ever drink.  (Being frugal, raki makers often store their potion in recycled water bottles.  If you see a water bottle with a broken seal in an Albanian refrigerator, be suspicious of its contents!).

Albanians are serious about their raki.  People will have grapes growing in their yards for the express purpose of distilling raki.  Men brag about the quality and taste of the raki they produce and insist that you try theirs since it is "the best there is".  (Fortunately for me, women aren't expected to part take in the tastings and I'm quick to opt out when the opportunity arises).  Meetings start with raki (regardless of the time of day), meals end with raki and for good measure, raki chasers accompany coffee.  In restaurants, raki may be brought to the table before or after meals (or if you are really lucky, both) by owners eager to share their version of this national drink.

To be fair, I have tried an occasional sip or two- usually out of Glenn's glass since I don't want to "waste" a whole glass on me. Some of the raki has been better than others but that is to say that the after burn doesn't last as long.

Fall is prime raki making season.  This past weekend we were invited to an Albanian family's house to watch the raki burning process. Yes, that is what they call it and I find it a wee bit ironic since that is what the raki does to you.  

The cauldron is sealed with a flour and water mixture
I'm not sure what I expected but the scene was everything I had imagined  a stereotypical Albanian experience would be.  An assortment of friends, neighbors and relatives were standing around in the backyard of a half finished house.  A makeshift still was perched over a fire.  The grapes had already been fermenting for some time so their mash was ready to distill.  The cauldron was sealed with a mixture of flour and water .  Once everything was in place a fire was lit and under the watchful eye of the adults, the children fed the fire with twigs, leaves, and the occasional tree limb.  All there was to do was wait.  And wait.  Actually, the wait was only an hour- during which time cups of raki were passed around.  After an hour a trickle of raki ran into the cup that had been placed at the bottom of the distiller.  

Here comes the raki
The trickle was slow but it kept coming.  It flowed on for several hours after which the process was repeated to ensure that the raki was "extra smooth".  Fortunately we didn't stick around to watch the  raki drip into the cup all afternoon.  We went out to a neighborhood "restaurant" where we had an Albanian lunch that lasted for hours.  Upon arrival at the restaurant we were taken on a tour of the chicken coop.  The meaning of the tour escaped me until our lunch arrived and it was fresh roasted chicken. The meal was delicious and accompanied by all of the traditional Albanian foods that seem to be a part of every dining experience in this country.  And yes, there was raki involved for those who chose to partake.  And we even got to take a water bottle filled with raki home with us.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Due to a variety of circumstances, we were recently offered the opportunity to extend our orders from two years to three. Everyone has told us that two years isn't enough time to really get to know the country and that four years is too much.  Three years is the ideal and it looks like it is now ours.  Glenn and I had talked about staying longer in hypothetical terms when we had been told that our replacements had already been selected and June 2013 would be our departure date.  Knowing this, we had decided that if given the opportunity to stay longer, we would. So when the opportunity arose, we jumped at the chance and through a flurry of emails and text messages, said yes, we'll stay for another year.

So we are staying and the reality is sinking in.  This will mean a total of three years in Albania.  Another year of deciding whether "berry" "raspberry" or "cranberry" is the right lipstick color and then waiting 6-8 weeks for the unreliable pouch to deliver it.  Another year without my own furniture and personal belongings. Another summer of unbearable heat and an unreliable water supply.  A year is probably another 100 or so dinners and receptions we will attend and host.  We'll have another year of Glenn's long unpredictable hours and middle of the night Blackberry messages.  Another year without our close friends and family near by.  We'll have another year of AFN infomercials.  By the time we return to the States, every show on HGTV will be a new episode for us.  Maybe House Hunters International will finally be house hunting in Albania?

Sidney will now be 4 1/2 when we leave instead of 3 1/2.  He'll probably be fluent in Albanian by that time.  Hopefully his English skills will be half as strong.  We'll be able to fly back to the United States without a diaper bag in hand.  Heck, he'll be able to carry his own bag this time.  (Maybe this plan isn't half bad after all.........).

Another year here means a one year reprieve from having to pack up the house and relocate yet again.  After another year we might even be able to feel as though we have a small amount of stability in our lives.  Another year here means I will be able to prolong starting the torturous job search process.  We'll have another year to explore the Balkans and beyond.  I'll have another year to learn the lay of the land and fine tune my Albanian driving skills. (Although Virginia may revoke my license when they see what those skills have become). We'll have longer to cement our current friendships.  Maybe I'll also figure out which berry color is the right lipstick shade for me.

We're staying..........and we're so excited to be doing it!